|| Heroes of Their Own Lives
|| Linda Gordon
|| Viking © 1988
40 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010
The author, a historian, reports on her study of sexual and
physical violence in Boston, Massachusetts between 1880 and 1960. The book
consists of nine chapters, involving court records, court proceedings, and
pardon files covering 2,274 violent episodes over 80 years. The author indicates
how social values (never static) shaped society's intervention into sexual abuse
and shaped social service agencies. Unfounded cases are not discussed.
The study does not deal with violence towards men and thus
reflects both the immigrant's value system and the author's bias. She is
pro-feminist and child-rights oriented, and this prejudices her book. There is
little mention of fathers or fathers' rights. She admits she acquired her
sex-abuse history from her students alone (p. viii) but does not state the
limitations and assumptions of her study.
Although she admits to the historical poverty of the records,
she uses them anyway without adequate qualification. (See, for example, P.
Aries, Centuries of Childhood ()
and L. Pollock's Forgotten Children ()
historical results for the same period using different sets of records.) For
example, she focuses on immigrant social service records, despite the fact that
sexual abuse occurs in all social classes in America.
Her narrow perspective on family power and its social control
agencies results in her overlooking the power of job, factory, court and the farm in her analysis.
She fails to look beyond man-woman relationships for the broader social power of
institutions as shapers of family violence. She neither maintains a consistent
perspective nor provides more than a superficial analysis of sociological
events. At one point she cautions the reader not to blame the victim, yet she
does so herself by blaming families. She further trashes the concept of
adolescent rights as well as the early efforts of social workers to improve
conditions for women. She recites as evidence the discrimination against
immigrant groups that took place by social workers (much like Blacks and women
today), and further describes the clients of social work agencies in 1910 as not
being "frank" with social workers because of the ability of men to
disrupt the lives of their families.
The book makes sweeping assertions without historical
supports. There is unnecessary social work bashing, stating for example, that
agency records on incest (1910-1920) were covered up by social workers who
blamed the problem on female unemployment. The author's mistake is her
presumption that social workers could do anything they wanted to do, ignoring
what we know of the governmental and organizational bureaucracy. She assumes
social agencies have their own lives and are not reflective of broad
social-political pressures. To the extent that social workers are female, the
author has done a disservice to all women.
Reviewed by LeRoy Schultz, School of
Social Work, West Virginia University.